A year after being shut down by COVID-19, Kobuk 440 organizers plan for 2021 race

A dog team runs on flat snow with trees behind him and low mountains
Musher Jeff King traverses the Kobuk 440 trail in 2015 between the checkpoints of Shungnak and Kobuk. (Francesca Fenzi/KNOM)

Officials for the Kobuk 440 sled dog race are gearing up for this April’s event, after last year’s race was canceled because of the coronavirus. Officials said they’re better prepared to run the race this time around. 

“You know, the main difference is time,” said Paul Hansen, president of the Kobuk 440 Racing Association.

Last year, the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, several weeks before the race, the last major event of mushing season. Hansen said that left little notice to run a safe race. 

“Just didn’t have much time to think about it and to plan,” Hansen said. “And the mood at that time was to shut everything down.”

The race was canceled

This time around, Hansen said officials are working to finalize their safety mitigation plans for both the 440 and the shorter Taaqpak 120, which runs at the end of February. The 120 starts in Kotzebue and runs north up to Noatak, where mushers take a layover, then loop back. Hansen said there’s talk of increasing the race to 150 miles so it would count as an Iditarod qualifier. 

“In that case, there’s potential to run it up to the Shelter cabin that’s between Noatak and Kivalina,” Hansen said.

The Kobuk 440 runs from Kotzebue, heading east to Noorvik before going one of two routes.

“Either up the Kobuk River, so Noorvik, Kiana, Ambler, Shungnak, Kobuk back to Ambler,” Hansen said. “And then down the other side, down to Selawik then back to Noorvik and back home to Kotzebue.”

Hansen said officials plan on collaborating with village leaders along the trail to make sure everyone agrees to the safety plans. He said that could affect everything from logistics for water and food for mushers and dogs, to checkpoint locations themselves. 

“I’m assuming that we won’t be able to use some of the public facilities that we’ve used before, for instance the school,” Hansen said. “So, it could be that checkpoints end up being tents located just outside the village.”

Hansen’s more optimistic this time around, with the conversations around public health that have taken place in the Northwest Arctic. He said officials will continue to monitor local community health mandates as well as the status of the coronavirus vaccine.

“Certainly, the ideal would be to be vaccinated. The alternative is usually a quarantine,” Hansen said. “And so, I think we’ll wait and see where we’re at at that time.”

Hansen said information for mushers planning to register for either race will be posted to the Kobuk 440 website in the coming weeks. The Taaqpak 120 is scheduled for Feb. 27. The Kobuk 440 is set for April 1. 

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Wesley Early is a reporter with Alaska Public Media, covering municipal politics and Anchorage life.

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